A Tale of Two Sisters: Mary and Elizabeth Tudor

I spent my junior year of college at Lancaster University in Britain, which was fabulous for someone going into medieval English history. One of my courses covered Elizabethan England.  (Yes, I understand that’s not medieval.) The professor was particularly notable not just because he was American teaching English history in England (with more than a little snark), but also because he was really not a fan of Elizabeth I.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth at her coronation in Ezalibeth
Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth at her coronation in Elizabeth.  The image is based on a painting of the event.

I, on the other hand, am, along with lots of other people who consider her one of the great rulers of England. Professor Merriman was, however, a rather large fan of Elizabeth’s older sister, Mary I. And while I never loss my love of Elizabeth, I did get a new appreciation of Mary.

Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. At the age of 15, her father declared that marriage invalid (he annulled it rather than awarding a divorce, which remained illegal), which immediately made Mary a bastard. She was also repeatedly pressed to swear allegiance to her father as head of the English church, rather than the pope. The very Catholic Mary never did, despite many people losing their heads for refusing.

Elizabeth was the daughter of the second wife, Anne Boleyn. Exactly why Henry VIII executed her is up to debate. After all, he could have simply granted another annulment. He even had a theoretic excuse: he could say “oops, my bad” and acknowledge his marriage Catherine as legitimate, thereby invalidating the marriage to Anne.

How Henry Got Into This Mess

Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Elizabeth R
Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in Elizabeth R

The royal families of England and Spain wished to solidify relations, so they did what royal family did: they married off their kids. Princess Catherine married Henry’s elder brother, Arthur. Then Arthur died. So they married Catherine off to Henry after she swore up and down that she and Arthur never had sex and, thus, their married had never been consummated and, thus, the marriage was not valid. They even got the pope’s permission.

But after the birth of Mary, Catherine had no more children, and Henry probably legitimately came to believe God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s wife. In that light, their marriage was invalid, which is what annulments recognize. But after Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn bore no more children either, and now Henry believed God was punishing him for setting aside Catherine, who was now conveniently dead.

Rather than just giving himself another annulment, however, Henry accused Anne of treason by way of adultery. Not only was she executed, but so were five of her supposed lovers, including her own brother. There were rumors of her having hundreds of lovers, which would make Anne one busy queen even if she hadn’t been constantly under watch by guards and ladies in waiting, which was how royals lived. The accusations were ludicrous.

So now Elizabeth, at the age of three, was also a bastard, and her big sister took considerable pains to shelter her from the ugliness of their situations.

Mary, Ezalibeeth and Catherine Parr in The Tudors
Sara Bolder as Mary (left) and Laoise Murray as Elizabeth (right) in the The Tudors. Joely Richardson plays step-mom Catherine Parr. The ages are a bit strained here, as the girls were born 15 years apart.

Question of Succession

Henry eventually got his son and heir, but only one, the future Edward VI. Henry knew the danger of a questionable succession (his father had ended a war concerning such a situation), so he declared Mary and Elizabeth his heirs after Edward, presuming Edward had no heirs: which he didn’t, dying at the age of 16 (good thing Henry thought ahead on that matter).

1545 Tudor Family Portrait
Historical family portrait painted two years before Henry VIII’s death. Center is Henry, son Edward, and Edward’s dead mother, Jane Seymour. Mary and Elizabeth are practically in other rooms.


And so, in 1553, Mary because the first woman to rule England in her own right.

As a bastard.

There are two big reasons why Mary is remembered as poorly as she is. The first is that she only lived five years. As Prof. Merriman taught, there were all sorts of things that Mary started that weren’t finished until the time of Elizabeth, and we think of them being Elizabeth’s accomplishments.

The second is she became the villain. Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, which she may well have done had she lived longer. Instead, the Protestant Elizabeth ruled for 45 years, ensuring England would permanently be a Protestant kingdom. Mary became primarily known for burning 300 Protestants at the stake (OK, also for marrying Philip II of Spain, who, seriously, only wanted her for her money so he could wage war and shoot Protestants), even though Elizabeth had the blood of many more people on her hands.

She who rules longest wins, particularly if she’s half-competent, which Elizabeth was.

1572 family portrait.  At this point, everyone in the painting is dead except Elizabeth, who stresses her relationwhip with her father, as well as plentitude and PEace.  Poor Mary is tucked in a corner with her unpopular husband and Mars, Roman god of war.
1572 family portrait. At this point, everyone in the painting is dead except Elizabeth (front), who stresses her relationship with her father (center), as well as Plenitude and Peace (right). Poor Mary is tucked into the right corner with her unpopular husband and Mars, Roman god of war.

Mary knew the danger her sister represented. During her rule, she put Elizabeth in the Tower of London and was urged by many to execute her as a Protestant and a focus of potential rebellion. Elizabeth supposedly etched one of my favorite quoted into the window glass of her “cell” (actually, a quite comfortable room), “Much suspected of me, nothing proved can be.”

But Mary didn’t kill her, and when Mary knew she was dying, she insisted her father’s will remain in effect: Elizabeth would be her heir.

Elizabeth was also still legally a bastard. And, unlike Mary, who had her status changed via Parliament after her ascension, she ruled her entire life with that status on the legal books. And no one really gave a damn, perhaps because everyone recognized the whole legitimate/illegitimate game as absurd, and perhaps because there was still no clear heir after Edward and Mary other than their sister.

A Question of Children

Helen Mirren in white Elizabethan gown
Helen Mirren as the elderly Virgin Queen. Elizabeth had a massive PR campaign to paint herself worthy of being a monarch.

As per Prof. Merriman, the real success or failure of the two women as queens came in regards to attempts at childbearing. Mary married and earnestly tried to conceive. So dedicated was she that when a false pregnancy stretched into its 10th or 11th month, she continued to believe she was pregnant.

Elizabeth never even married. While she entertained numerous suitors, it’s debated whether or not she ever seriously considered marrying any of them.

The first job of a queen consort (a woman who has married a king), is unarguably to bear children so the monarch had heirs and the succession was assured. This was the duty, argued Merriman, of a queen regnant (a female monarch) just as much as a queen consort. Mary failed in producing an heir, but at least she tried.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, flaunted her situation as the Virgin Queen. Although, to be fair, since she wasn’t married, the only acceptable state for her was virginity, so it was best that everyone be reminded of it.

In death, Mary and Elizabeth are much as they were in life.  They are buried together in Westminster Abbey.  However, Elizabeth’s coffin has been set on top of Mary’s, and only the more remembered and celebrated Elizabeth has an effigy marking the grave.  The inscription reads “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection.”


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